25 February, 2013

1219 minutes

So here’s the thing.

Firstly, a disclaimer: I have been busy this past couple of months. Very busy. So busy that I haven’t really had the time to work on my Oscar post that I would normally do. Instead, I found myself throwing the odd paragraph together where I could find the time. So with ten minutes here and ten minutes there I've managed to cobble together this post – which is still surprisingly long for something so hurriedly written – but I haven’t really had much time to rework my writing, in the way that I normally would. (There are also other things I wanted to say but haven’t had the time to write them.) I would just try to find the time to fix this up, but the Oscars are on tomorrow, and I want to get this posted before then. So, what you'll find here is basically a first very-rough draft. Be prepared for some pretty clumsy and inelegant writing. Apologies for that.

[Spoilers for Les Misérables, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Lincoln, and Django Unchained, after the break.]

I love Les Misérables. My family saw it back in 1991 when the show came to New Zealand, and I was inspired to read the original novel in the lead-up to seeing the show. Since then I've read the book about four times, and have enjoyed every different version of the show I could, be they on stage, on video, or audio. It is a great novel, a phenomenal show, and I've wanted a great musical film that would live up to the source material. And finally, Tom Hooper decided to make the movie musical.

There’s a lot to like about Les Misérables. Firstly, there’s just the fact that it’s an adaptation of Les Misérables. It’s a great book, a grand and sweeping story presented with a vast cast of iconic characters, and a compelling central conflict. And there’s a reason why the show has become one of the longest-running musicals; the show cleverly pares the 1300-pages of the novel down under 180 minutes, and pairs it with some great haunting music. One thing I love about the show is how well it handles the death scenes – there are so, so many deaths in the show (basically, everyone dies in Les Mis) that it could easily start to numb the audience or start to weigh the show down, but each person’s death is given a weight and power while still managing to give the story a sense of uplift and hope. With source material as strong as that, you’d almost have to be actively trying to make a bad film to mess it up completely. I loved the fact that they threw in the occasional elements from the book that aren't in the show, like the fact that Gavroche lives in the Elephant of the Bastille statue, or that Valjean and Cosette hide in the convent where the man Valjean once rescued works as a gardener, or that it’s Gavroche (rather than Eponine) who delivers a pivotal note, or that certain characters survive the barricade but are executed in the wine shop (because everyone dies in Les Mis). And there are some really smart decisions around moving some songs; the mourning and loss of “I Dreamed A Dream” works so much better after Fantine has fallen into prostitution, rather than after she’s just lost her job, while the rallying cry of “Do You Hear The People Sing” makes sense to come at the start of the rebellion, rather than during the planning stage. There’s the whole live-singing element, where the songs aren't pre-recorded or sweetened in studio, but are recorded live on set; I was really curious about that approach when it was announced, and it was generally successful. Sure, there were the occasional notes that didn’t quite hit, but that didn't matter because the performances hit an extraordinary level of emotional reality and rawness that would otherwise have been impossible. (Even Russell Crowe is generally fine; the only time I was actually bothered by his lack of singing expertise was when he sang “Stars”, and his performance as the determined, moralistic Javert was otherwise so strong that it didn't really matter.) It’s a film that offers phenomenal spectacle, particularly once it reaches the barricades, in a way that the stage show can never hope to achieve; hundreds of soldiers, horses, cannons, and a massive barricade that actually feels like an imposing structure. And I’m fully willing to give full credit to Tom Hooper for all this.

The problem is, I wish Tom Hooper could have worked on the film, done all the pre-production, then left and had someone else direct it. Because the man does not know how to direct a film. In my earlier comments on The King’s Speech, I suggested it seemed as though Hooper had just sat back and watched his actors make the film; it did feel like a film that had essentially directed itself. The problem is that as soon as you give him something that demands actual direction, actual cinematic heft, he has no idea how to do start about filming.

If you’re a good director, every scene, every shot, every element in that shot, even down to the type of lens used to capture the image, what is and isn't in focus, needs to be carefully considered, and there should be a clear reason for each choice that is made. Different shots convey different emotions; different things are expressed by a close-up as opposed to a mid-shot or a long-shot; the way you cut between shots should communicate information. I do not get any sense of that with this film. Tom Hooper doesn't seem to have any ability to imagine how to tell the story visually, nor indeed to imagine any shot other than big grand swooping shots or close-ups. And when I refer to close-up, I mean close close-ups, faces filling the screen. It reached a point where I was glad when the camera was pulled back just enough to see the character’s shoulders, because it at least gave that degree of extra distance from the characters. It almost seemed as though Hooper was so desperate to prove “hey, they’re really singing” that he focused on using close-ups to show that fact, rather than considering “what type of shot works best to tell the story at this moment?” When you couple that with such long sustained shots (many songs are presented in one or maybe two shots), it becomes uncomfortable. I can see the close-ups may play slightly better at home, where the smaller television screens allow for some distance, but on the big screen it’s inescapable; you just look at this face, occupying your entire vision, for minutes at a time. And there’s no reason for it. Sure, the live-singing may have made it difficult to splice different performances together, but I read an article that said they had three cameras running at all times. A decent director would have planned ahead and positioned those cameras to give himself the maximum number of different types of shots for cutting. Hooper often seems to want to let single takes play out as long as possible, and if he does cut from one camera to another, it’s usually just a swap from one close-up to a different close-up.

And then there are the moments where the actors actually look into the camera, which breaks one of the cardinal rules about filmmaking. There are really only a couple of reasons why characters should ever look into the camera – it’s either explicitly a point-of-view shot, and the person whose point-of-view we are within has someone looking at them; or the film is breaking the fourth wall because the character is actively engaging with the audience (think of films like Ferris Bueller or Funny Games, where character look into the camera and talk to the audience). Other than that, the audience should remain an invisible observer to the action, with the characters acting as though they have no idea their actions are being observed. But when characters are constantly looking straight at you and singing at you, it’s uncomfortable to you as an audience, especially when those moments come in big soliloquy songs where the emotion is so brutally raw, and are accompanied by a close-up of a character; imagine standing right in front of an acquaintance, someone you perhaps know but not well, imagine you’re so close to them you’re almost touching, imagine you’re looking into their eyes as they cry and sob and tear their hearts out, and imagine there’s no way you can console that person, and that give you an idea of how uncomfortable the film’s filming style becomes.

Then there’s the dutch angles, so so many dutch angles. Hooper seems to feel as though he needs to develop a visual signature as a director, and he’s decided on dutch angles, where the camera is tilted to an extreme degree. The problem is that he never seems selective about it; it’s like he’s just a hyperactive child who gets tired of level cameras every few minutes and so throws a tilted shot every now and then. Why do these shots need to be tilted at such an extreme angle? I don’t know, and I doubt if Hopper could articulate why. They’re just there because that’s his style, it’s what he does in his films, and who cares about ether it actually works for the story you’re telling.

There’s also this one moment of remarkable nastiness that is entirely out-of-character for the piece. There’s this one major moment that comes when a certain character commits suicide (because, seriously, everyone dies in Les Mis) by jumping from a bridge in the middle of the night. In the book, after describing the character’s actions in the lead-up to their death, Hugo decided to step back and watch the actual death from a distance, writing

“A moment afterwards, a tall and black form, which from the distance some belated passer might have taken for a phantom, appeared standing on the parapet, bent towards the Seine, then sprang up, and fell straight into the darkness; there was a dull splash; and the shadow alone was in the secret of the convulsions of that obscure form which had disappeared under the water.”

On stage the scene has great power; the character has a moving song about their emotional turmoil that rips at your heart, and then the actual moment of death is presented using a piece of stagecraft that is simple but effective in creating an illusion of someone disappearing into what Hugo describes as a “chasm” or “that abyss”. On film, there is no such poetry in the way it’s presented, nor could there be; we have to watch the person jump from a bridge. But the character doesn't just fall into the depths of the water below that Hugo described, no; Hooper decides to put a concrete weir beneath the bridge, so that we can watch as this person’s body crashes into the concrete, hear as their every bone is broken. It’s almost Hooper hates this character in a way that neither Hugo nor the show did; Hooper wants this character to suffer, and their suffering through such emotional turmoil is not enough. It takes a tragic moment and makes it utterly hateful. Of all of Hooper’s offences, this is possibly the worst, because it shows a complete misunderstanding of what our relationship to this character is.

Ultimately Les Mis feels like the film you get when a body like the Academy tells someone who cannot direct that they can. I’m just glad they had the good sense this year not to nominate him. I walked into the film excited to see it, and walked out of it in a genuine rage. And in many ways that’s absurd, because it’s really not that bad; it’s a 2½ star film; a B, or even B-, effort. There are so many worse films to be angry about. But this film should have been better, and the only reason the film is as good as it is is due to elements other than the quality of the actual filmmaking.

Unlike Les Mis, I was not optimistic going into Silver Linings Playbook. While I've enjoyed David O Russell’s work in the past, I felt his last film (The Wrestler) had real tonal problems; I was concerned about the tastefulness of making a romantic comedy about people dealing with mental illness; and my love of Jennifer Lawrence is tempered by the presence of Robert De Niro and everything he’s done in the past 15-or-so years.

Fortunately, Silver Linings Playbook was great. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of mental illness, but it felt very real and honest. This is no sugar-coated portrayal; the film does not use the character’s illnesses as a justification for quirky behaviour. There are moments where Bradley Cooper’s bipolar character becomes genuinely scary, and you can get a glimpse of how hard it must be to have someone that you love struggling with these types of issues. I also liked that there had been a lot of work to distinguish the challenges facing each character; Jennifer Lawrence’s issues are wildly different to those Bradley Cooper faces, while De Niro (as Cooper’s father) seems to be undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive and therefore has his own challenges. The film seemed to understand that the term “mental illness” covers a vast variety of conditions, and that there’s a wide variety of ways people respond to different issues, and it approaches these problems with sincerity and respect. All of which means it’s possibly the best romantic comedy about mental illness that could be made.

And it is a genuine romantic comedy, in the true meaning of both of those words. As upsetting as the harder moments may be, Russell never forgets that this is supposed to be a funny film, and finds that delicate balance between portraying these issues honestly and also being laugh-out-loud funny. Now, I shouldn’t be surprised that Russell manages to achieve that balance, since his entire career has been built on mining comedy in unexpected or uncomfortable places; I never saw his well-received incest-comedy Spanking The Monkey, but Three Kings found great humour in the first Iraq war, while I ♥ Huckabees managed to find a remarkable amount of amusement in philosophy and existentialism.

And the romance felt genuine. The problem with most romantic comedies is that they are so artificial; the standard “they can’t stand each other, but they fall in love anyway” framework is painfully clichéd, and they’re usually produced in a half-hearted cynical manner (witness Katherine Heigel’s film career). But this film is genuine; the characters aren’t separated by some artificial barrier like “he’s escorting her to prison” or “she hates that he forgot their one-night-stand”. There are reasons why the two of them don’t immediately come together; he’s still in love with his cheating ex-wife, for a start. Plus, how many awful romantic comedies are built on the contrivance of one character having some big secret, just so it can come out to create some third act tension? These characters almost talk too much, revealing everything about themselves the first time they meet. (Their bonding over their medication experiences is really rather cute.) There is one small secret that one character keeps from another (one which seemed blindingly obvious to me but which seemed to really shock the people behind me when it was revealed), but even there Russell takes the unusual route, with the other party treating the eventual revelation less as an OMG Betrayal! and instead understanding why they did this thing and treating it as a cause for happiness.

I am a bit shocked by all the acting nominations the film received; all four main actors had nominations. And everyone is very good: Bradley Cooper loses all of his smarmy pretensions and gives a surprisingly vulnerable performance; Jennifer Lawrence utterly convinces as a young widow struggling with a life she never expected; and De Niro really surprised me, toning down his excesses and seeming like a real person for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. But are they all Oscar-worthy? I don’t think so. And as for Jackie Weaver, as Cooper’s mother: it’s a fine performance, she does everything she can with it, but it’s a nothing role, and the only reason I even remember her in the film is because I recognised her from her stellar performance in Animal Kingdom. It’s a nomination that is just absurd.

Which brings me to my one real problem with the film. The film climaxes with a dance performance (that’s not a spoiler, since the premise of the film revolves around these characters preparing for this performance). And the performance we watch is very entertaining and a perfect cap to the film. Except that someone behind the scenes seemed to almost be afraid that the stakes weren’t high enough. So the stakes are escalated to a ridiculous level, to a point where it’s not enough that they just perform; they need to reach a specific score from the judges, and a score that is much higher than they could realistically achieve given the quality of the other performances we’re shown and how those were marked by individual judges. It takes what should be a triumphant moment of release and joy, and instead I found myself rolling my eyes at the absurdity of what was happening on screen. It’s always a shame when a good film flubs the ending like that, because that failing does colour the way you see the rest of the film. And this film deserves a better ending than that.

And speaking of unfortunate endings…

Life of Pi is certainly a remarkable film. The story of a young man shipwrecked and stuck on a small lifeboat with a vicious man-eating tiger, sailing in the middle of an ocean that never quite seems real, it’s a striking cinematic experience, and one of the best I’ve had. It’s carried by a stellar performance by first-time actor Suraj Sharma, who has to spend almost all of his time on-screen either acting against an imaginary tiger or reacting with wonder or fear at one spectacle or another. It’s an acting challenge that would challenge many experienced actors, but Sharma brings a weight and a reality to the film that belies his inexperience.

But the film’s true strength lies in its visuals. The film just looks great, in a way that it’s basically impossible to describe through words. The effects are perfectly constructed: the tiger in particular plays as a genuine character in the film and never seems false or unconvincing; there’s a visual spectacle in this world, whether it be this vast glassy ocean with waves of flying fish and crashing whales, or the bizarre island awash with meerkats and acidic water. And the use of 3D is remarkable, and may even be better than in Avatar; there’s this one sequence travelling through the ocean that is utterly breathtaking in 3D. As a cinematic, visual experience, it is phenomenal. One of the best film experiences of the year.

But if I have any problem with the film (and I do), it’s in the way it deals with religion and faith. In the film, the story being told is explicitly described as one that will make you believe in God, and I’ve heard people discuss the book as some kind of great exploration of the place of faith in human experience. But in the film religious elements seem dropped on to the story very occasionally, and are otherwise forgotten. Now I can quite imagine that the book would have greater space to reflect on these issues in ways that don’t translate visually. I’m just guessing, but I suspect that’s part of the reason the book was considered unfilmable - because that core thematic element could not be translated cinematically with any degree of consistency.

But my main issue with it is that the film is that, for all its purported spiritual significance, it seemed to me to actually be very dismissive of religion. If this film is reflective of the book (and I get the sense it is), then I suspect the author, Yann Martell, may be one of those people who doesn’t have a faith, but who “admires” those who do. The final sequence essentially treats religion as a story, a way of seeing the world that allows us to deal with the harsh realities of life. Ultimately we know what’s “true” in Life of Pi; it’s not the story of the tiger, but people choose to believe that story because it’s a nicer way to view the world.

But here’s the thing: I’m a Christian. I’m not as good a Christian as I want to be or should be, but I’m a Christian who believes in the tenets of my faith as a literal truth. I believe in the existence of an all-powerful God; I believe that His son was born to a virgin mother in an obscure town in what would seem like an insignificant corner of the world; I believe that he lived and preached and was killed as a common criminal, but that he was resurrected; I believe that the literal fact of that resurrection proved the truth of this faith to those who knew him, who were therefore inspired to spread that good news across the world; and I believe that in his death and resurrection I can have forgiveness of my sins. The thing is, the power of Christianity, the power of my faith, is only because of the reality of those elements. If my religion were just a pretty story to help me deal with the harsh realities of the world (which is basically what the film suggests), then my faith would be worthless, and in that case frankly I’ve got better things to do with my time than pray to a non-existent god. In Life of Pi, religion felt like it was presented as an almost wilful blindness to the world, a way to ignore reality. And no doubt any atheists that were to read this would see that in my faith. But to me, as a person who tries to live a Christian life, it just felt like the film, rather than affirming faith in the way it claimed, just dismissed it completely. And you’re more than welcome to make a film that dismisses faith; just don’t do it while claiming that you’re affirming faith.

A few years ago, I read an article from Wired Magazine about this strange incident where the CIA, in the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis, worked with Hollywood producers to create a fake science-fiction film, in order to sneak a number of embassy staff out of the country disguised as filmmakers. It was an astonishing story, and was so memorable that a few years later when I first heard the name of this film (back when it appeared on the infamous Black List of well-regarded unproduced screenplays), I recognised “Argo” as being the name of the fake film, and wondered whether the film had anything to do with that incident. Which, of course, it did.

At this point, all indicators seem to suggest that Argo will win the Best Picture award. Which is astonishing. I mean, in some ways it makes sense – it’s a skilfully constructed thriller that explores ongoing global tensions, it manages to be extremely entertaining and suspenseful despite having a story where the ending is never in doubt, and it actually shows Hollywood playing an important role in a major events. (The Academy loves films that talk about how important Hollywood is.) So in some ways it’s not really a surprise that Argo is such a strong contender.

Except that the film seems a frontrunner despite not having a Best Director nomination. The last time a film won Best Picture without even being nominated for Director was 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy (which was itself the first time that had happened since 1932’s Grand Hotel). The idea that the supposedly best film of the year might not have one of the best directors of the year is absurd, particularly in this case, because this really is a director-driven film. I really have been impressed with Ben Affleck as a director. His first film, Gone Baby Gone, is great - a nice tightly-constructed thriller that manages to navigate a seemingly-difficult transition point halfway through with ease. I loved The Town a little less – it’s well-made and has some good/great sequences, but is let down by something of a generic story. Argo probably sits in the middle of these films. It’s a phenomenal story, let down slightly by a screenplay that’s not as good as it deserves, but Affleck directs it so well that you barely notice the flaws. Right from the start, where the background history leading to the film’s events are presented as film storyboards in a stunning three-minute sequence (and one that doesn’t sugarcoat elements of America’s involvement in this country’s turmoil), it’s clear that Affleck has a strong vision for the film.

The thing about this film is that it’s part-international political thriller and part-Hollywood satire, and the film needs to constantly jump between people hiding in fear for their lives and comical scenes of script-readthroughs with people in daft costumes. The tonal jumps necessary to navigate are vast, but it feels seamless. The tension of the Iran scenes are in no way undercut by the Hollywood scenes; rather the importance of the mission and the need for everything to succeed perfectly elevates the otherwise frivolous nature of the filmmaking scenes. We may be watching a bunch of film-types attend a celebrity party, but those scenes are still intense and exciting because Affleck sustains the connection between these lightweight events and the intensity of the problem they are ultimately focused on resolving.

But the film is let down by a script by Chris Terrio that too often takes the easy way out. Yes, you expect changes to the true events when a film is “based on a true story”, but at time the film just feels like it has recognisably moved away from reality. There are too many elements in the film that feel contrived and forced in to create something that feels less true-story and more generic-Hollywood-film. Those generic elements start out small; for instance giving Affleck a troubled relationship with his wife and family that can be resolved by the end of the film. Or there’s the “Argo fuck yourself” joke all involved in the mission make – I have no idea whether that was something that was actually said by the real participants or whether it was a joke invented by Terrio, but whichever is the case it’s only ever a mildly-amusing line that is so overused in the script that by the end you’re glad to realise they’ve said it for the last time. And as the film goes on there are more and more elements introduced into the script that feel more and more fictional, until by the end of the film, almost everything seems contrived. When we reach the climax, there’s an absurd scene where Alan Arkin (as the fake film’s producer) needs to cross a street to answer an urgent phone call from Iranian customs, but he can’t cross because they’re shooting a film outside his studio office. Then there’s this sequence where the identities of the escaping parties are discovered minutes before the plane takes off, resulting in a sequence where vehicles race down the runway trying to stop the plane in a scene that reminded me of Face/Off. (If you’re making a true-story film, reminding the audience of an over-the-top John Woo action scene is not a good idea.) But despite that silliness, Affleck manages to make the film work. That said, if the film does win the Best Picture Oscar, it will be a mistake – there are definitely better films from last year. But then the Oscars have a history of going to the wrong films, so that’s nothing new.

I remember the day Bin Laden died. There was news footage of college students partying in the streets; and I became annoyed with a few people on Facebook who rather sanctimoniously expressed distaste for people celebrating the death of a human being as though he didn’t deserve it. (Let’s be honest: Bin Laden was pure evil, I’m glad that he’s dead, and if it had been my choice I’d have fed his body to a bunch of rabid dogs, then killed the dogs, buried any remains, and built a public toilet on top.) By complete coincidence, that week the makers of the radio show This American Life had chosen to do an episode about stories that happened during that very week, so they had a piece about these partying students. And I found their perspective fascinating. These college students were 8 or 9 years when 9/11 happened. They were just reaching that point where they’re following the news, so 9/11 was possibly the first real news event that they were aware of. Their entire maturation from children to adults happened in, and was defined by, the post-9/11 world. And in that world, Bin Laden was almost the boogeyman, this figure of pure evil that they’ve had since they were kids. And now he’s dead? Why would you not celebrate?

The story goes that Katherine Bigelow was working on a film about an earlier failed attempt to get Bin Laden when the announcement of Bin Laden’s death was made. Immediately, they stopped making that film, and started working on Zero Dark Thirty. Apparently there’s little or nothing of that earlier film in ZDT, but watching the film they did make I suspect none of that work was wasted. Barely 19 months passed between the actual events and the release of the film, but this does not feel like any kind of a rush-job, it’s calm, considered, and well-crafted, and there’s a level of comfort displayed in the world portrayed. The filmmakers clearly spent so much time in this world preparing for the earlier film that, when the new story arose, they were all ready to go.

One of these days I need to dig into Bigelow’s back-catalogue. I’d previously only seen The Hurt Locker, and that was impressive, but this is something else. Bigelow is famous as an action director, but there’s a surprising lack of action in this film. Other than the climactic raid on Bin Laden’s compound (probably about 30 minutes of screen time), there’s surprisingly little action or suspense moments in the film: an explosion at a hotel; a suspenseful meet with a double-agent; a nice sequence where agents try to follow a possible lead around a maze of streets; and that is probably about it. Most of the rest of the film (which is a good 2½ hours) is people sitting around discussing the case, debating leads, is this intelligence good – there’s even an extended sequence where the entire point is someone asking “why aren’t we doing anything?”. But Bigelow applies all her skills as an action director to these dialogue scenes, giving them a surprising weight and urgency. There’s such a total and confident command on every moment of the film that it makes the failure of the Academy to give Bigelow a directing nomination for this film an absurdity.

And the tension builds so well during the first two-or-so hours of the film that by the time the actual raid arrives, I was prepared for disappointment. As we see Seal Team Six on the copters flying to the attack, I was convinced it would be impossible for any single action sequence to match the level of excitement and suspense the first two acts of the film had created. And then one of the aircraft crashes, and bang you’re into it. Bigelow skilfully communicates the tactics of the attack – the multiple points in the attack, who is where and doing what – clearly and succinctly. It doesn’t shy away from the more difficult elements of the attack: we do see women killed, children watching as their parents die. But it is treated honestly; this is what happened, so this is how it will be portrayed. The whole thing plays out probably in close to real time; there’s no big slo-mo death sequences, just alive-bang-dead. Even the death of Bin Laden plays so quickly you could almost miss it. But there’s a nice beat after the death where the shooter realises the enormity of what he has just done that I absolutely loved. (Reading the excellent recent interview with the Shooter, I was interested in his comments about how accurate the film’s portrayal of the raid was; it seemed like his biggest criticism was that the characters talked too much in the raid rather than relying on silent signals. Recognising that much of the dialogue was to communicate information to an audience that may be unused to interpreting military signals, if that’s the biggest deviation from reality, then it seems the film got it pretty much right.)

Obviously everyone has been discussing the issue of the way torture is portrayed in this film: does the film endorse torture; does the film say torture is effective? Leaving aside the fact that the controversy was probably manufactured in an attempt to spoil ZDT’s Oscar hopes and improve another film’s chances, it’s a pointless argument. Does the film portray torture? In a few moments, yes. But it’s not 24-style torture-for-entertainment (and I say that as a fan of 24); the torture is shown in an appropriately brutal, horrific, and dehumanising light, and that in some ways is shown to seriously damage the torturers (even if not as much as the tortured). And the torture is not shown as particularly effective: in one moment, when asked for the day when an attack will take place, the tortured recites every day of the week, plainly desperate to give any answer that will end the torture. (Indeed, what little information is collected is given once the person starts being treated as a human being.) But the issue isn’t “does the film endorse torture”; the issue is whether torture was used in the instances shown in the film. If the key piece of information was gained in the manner that directly or indirectly involved torture (and I assume it was), it would be dishonest to whitewash those actions out of the film. Portraying actual events in a way that reflects how they actually happened does not mean that those events are endorsed; but making a film that sought to present the truth yet chose to ignore a key element of that truth would just be wrong.

One of the big surprises was the nomination of Beast of the Southern Wild. I remember when I saw the film at the film festival last year. When introducing the film, the festival organiser said "Finally I can stop trying to describe this film. Now that's your problem to deal with." And there’s a good reason for that comment. It's not that the film is incoherent; it's not a David Lynch-style impression-driven piece. This is a film that has clear well-defined characters, a distinct setting, and a coherent story - I always knew exactly what was happening, why, and how it connected to everything before. But there's something about this wonderful film that you just cannot capture in words. It just needs to be experienced.

The film revolves around a young girl, named Hushpuppy, living with her unwell, often-drunk, violently-angry, but loving father in a ramshackle community located below the levees in New Orleans. At one point early in the film, a Katrina-esque storm comes, some in the community are washed away, the rest stay, celebrating and partying as they wait for the waters to fall, avoiding the authorities trying to make them move. Meanwhile giant defrosted prehistoric beasts make their way across half the globe towards the community.

You see, that's part of the difficulty of this film. This is not a film that necessarily takes place in any place of reality (if it did, the giant defrosted prehistoric beasts probably wouldn't be in the film), but nor does it seem to take place in some magical reality world. It just is this thing, that is wonderful and brilliant and moving and horrifying and enchanting. The film is beautiful - even when the images presented are disturbing or ugly, there's a curious beauty to them. And it's a film that is emotionally honest - most other films would push the difficult relationship between father-and-daughter into one of one-dimensional abuse, and that would be easy to do (certainly there are points where it seems like that’s where it may be going). But this isn't that - this is a father who doesn't know how to be a father, who doesn't know where to begin, who is facing his own problems and can't be bothered by those of his daughter, yet as scary as his violent rages often are, there is a genuine love and affection evident between the two.

Much has been said about how Quvenzhane Wallis (who was six years old at the time of filming, and who is now nine) is the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee ever. And the nomination is understandable. The film is carried by her performance, and she is absolutely phenomenal as this resourceful child, not really understanding this world that she lives in, but able to navigate it. This is a character who at times finds herself in terrible danger, but for whom there is never any sense of peril because, whatever situation she finds herself in, she is resourceful and in control of herself. There’s a sense that if she ever died, it would be because she chose to die. This is someone who cooks food wearing a football helmet because the way she cooks she just needs a football helmet. Yet for all her maturity, it’s a shock to realise she is still a child - late in the film she finds herself in a kind-of possible-afterworld pleasure-boat-brothel, dancing with a woman who may be of particular significance. And that's a moving moment, because for a moment she turns into a child, and it's like Hushpuppy is someone entirely different.

One of the other big nominations for the film is the Best Director nomination for Benh Zeitlin. In some ways that’s an unfortunate nomination – the film is well-directed, but there are definitely films that were much better on the screen that were not nominated. My guess is that the nomination is probably for Quevenzhane’s performance; when you have a child that young giving a performance that great, there’s a real sense that it’s the director who managed to get that performance out of the child, either on set or during editing. So I can understand the nomination. I still think it’s wrong, but that shouldn’t take away from the film itself, which really is one of the most joyful experiences I had in the cinema last year.

Despite the presence of Beasts, possibly the biggest surprise nomination was Amour. It’s a great film, and was widely tipped as the likely winner of the Foreign Language Oscar, but it’s a shock that a foreign-language film would break out of that ghetto to have a chance at the big award. The film focuses on an elderly couple whose lives are devastated when the wife has a stroke, and then is paralysed by an unsuccessful operation. Since she hates the idea of going back to a hospital, her loving husband decides to care for his wife at home.

When the film was first announced, people thought the “love” of the title was ironic, since the idea of Haneke making an earnest film about love seemed absurd. But while the film isn’t about grand sweeping emotion, the title isn’t the least bit ironic. “This is true love,” Haneke seems to be saying. “Love isn’t what we see in Hollywood films, where everyone’s just looking for the next person they want to sleep with; love is a man dedicating his life to helping and caring for the woman he has spent his life with, trying to make her life every little bit better even as he watches the light fade from her eyes.”

I was surprised, but delighted, by Haneke’s nomination for Best Direction. I’ve loved some of Haneke’s films in the past, and I’ve haaated others, but one thing that I always admire (even in the films I’ve hated) is his complete control of the film. Frankly, the reason why Amour is so great is because Haneke directed it. Any other film dealing with this subject matter would completely overplay the emotion – close-ups of pained sobbing faces, sweeping music, every possible cliché exploited to tell the audience how sad this situation is – until it became unbearable to sit through. But we don’t need that, because we are adults and capable of recognising how tragic these circumstances are. Haneke’s film style, by contrast, tends to have a distancing effect. He barely ever uses the close-up shot; instead, he will usually just place a camera in a corner of the room, and just watch it play out, not even panning unless it’s absolutely necessary. That filmmaking style keeps us completely separate from the film’s events; we’re not part of it in any way, we’re just observers watching things play out. We connect with the emotion of the film, not because the film forces the emotion on us, but just because in our observing the situation we develop an understanding and compassion for the characters and what they are dealing with. In many ways, that filmmaking elicits a deeper, more powerful response because we aren’t manipulated into that emotion.

Much attention has been given to Emmanuelle Riva, who was nominated for Best Actress, and she gives a fine performance. But to me, it seemed she had the easier role; just needing to sit and not understand what’s happening. It’s a very strong and surprisingly vulnerable performance. But in the role of the husband, Jean-Louis Trintignant is called on to do so much more. He has to communicate this lifetime of love, and deal with the pain of seeing all that go away. He’s the one who is struggling and in turmoil throughout the entire film; he’s the person the audience ultimately relates to; he’s the person who expresses the love of the title. And it’s a shame that he seems to have been generally overlooked.

Ultimately, Haneke is a phenomenal director, and an intelligent one, but his desire to test and provoke the audience can at times feel wearying and immature. I was therefore pleased to find Amour marked a surprising development and exciting possible direction for him, one that allowed him to still test the audience, while offering more than just an academic treatise on the nature of cinema. It’s a more human film than I’d have ever expected from him, and for all the struggle and pain in the film, it’s ultimately a sincere and heartfelt film that I loved.

And then there’s Lincoln. It’s no surprise that its a well-made and engaging film from Spielberg; the odd flub aside (say, War Horse), Spielberg knows how to make a fine piece of cinema and how to entertain an audience. It does a fine job of giving the history an immediacy in a way that many films fail to do; the events feel messy and clumsy and busy, the people fallible and human. And I liked the film’s sharp focus. This is not a grand biopic trying to tell an entire life story in 2½ hours; this is a film that focuses on one significant event in Lincoln’s life and tries to look at who he was through that event. In this case, it takes place in one month, after his re-election but before his second inauguration, as he tries to push the 13th Amendment to the Consistitution, abolishing slavery, through the House of Representatives.

But I did have some issues with the portrayal of Lincoln. Now, Daniel Day Lewis does a fine job in the role. But the problem is that Lincoln is, well, Abraham Lincoln. He is this monumental figure in American history that as a result can never be allowed to be truly human. I never had the sense that he was a flawed human, or someone who had to struggle to do the right thing; the only time he seems to have any issues that cause him any conflict arise when his son wants to fight in the war. Other than that, Lincoln is likeable, intelligent, and a fine soft-spoken raconteur. Indeed, that’s the most notable characteristic of Lincoln in the film; his tendency to just start telling a story to demonstrate a particular point. (One of the best moments in the film comes when one character realises Lincoln is starting to tell a story, so makes a point to leave the room because he can’t deal with another story right now.) Ultimately Lincoln stands aloof, apart from people even while he engages with them.

The portrayal of Lincoln is perhaps damaged further by just how strong most of the rest of the characters are, and also how much more engaged they are in the actual story. Lincoln may have made the decision to try and push the 13th Amendment through at that time, and may have been instrumental in the political planning behind the Amendment, but he’s not that involved in the actual day to day execution that forms the basis of much of the film. And the people actively involved in all that work are more engaging as characters than the titular character. They’re doing the backroom deals to persuade people to change their votes, offering jobs and positions as rewards for votes. It’s more fun to watch, say, James Spader as a political operative, drinking and smoking and gambling and occasionally having people try to shoot him, than it is to watch Lincoln being all perfect.

Or consider Tommy Lee Jones, as Thaddeus Stevens, a forceful abolitionist voice. He’s a man of great passion and conviction and anger, and every second he’s on screen the film is lifted. Indeed, the best moment of the film (and the scene that probably earned Jones his Supporting Actor nomination) comes when Stevens is forced to deny his personal belief in full equality between the races, in order to achieve the more pressing goal of equality before the law. He manages to find a nice way to work around saying what he doesn’t want to say, but it’s clear that any acknowledgement of inequality between white and black causes him real pain. As a result, it is a more interesting and compelling scene than anything the film gives to the titular character.

Plus, there’s the ending. I really did feel that the film should have ended with the vote on the amendment to abolish slavery – that’s the main conflict of the film, the amendment’s passing is the climax of the film, and it’s a natural end point. Instead, after the entire film takes place in the space of one month, in the last five minutes of the film it skips ahead a few months to quickly show the end of the war then to kill off Lincoln. And it felt like they just threw in his death just because that’s what was expected in a film about Lincoln. We all know Lincoln was killed shortly afterwards, so we need to show that. We need to show him leaving the house for the theatre; his cabinet and his servants watching him leave in an ominous way. But I wish they had taken a different approach; if everyone knows Lincoln was shot then there’s no need to show that, especially since it doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. Now, I did like the way the film handled the actual moment of death; rather than showing Lincoln being shot, they show his young son watching a children’s theatrical show which is interrupted with the announcement. That was a nicely tasteful approach to the scene. But it really did not fit the film and should not have been in there.

But I do want to be clear: my issues with the way Lincoln is portrayed does not mean that I don’t like the film; I did. Indeed, after seeing it I was prompted to look into the availability of the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, which formed the basis for the film. It’s just that the film feels like a bit of a hagiography, and there’s a real problem with a film where you can think of a dozen more interesting characters before you get to the character the film supposedly is about.

And finally we come to Tarantino. Last year, I found myself working my way through Tarantino’s back catalogue; an experience that really opened my eyes to the filmmaker and caused me to gain a better appreciation of his work. I still hate Reservoir Dogs, but watching Pulp Fiction I felt I finally understand the popularity of that film, while Jackie Brown was a complete revelation that prompted me to order the Blu-Ray that same night. My feelings on his more recent films are largely unchanged: I really enjoy the combined Kill Bill experience; mostly hate Death Proof; and think Inglourious Basterds is a masterful work.

Now comes Django Unchained: the story of a black slave in the pre-Civil War South who is freed by a German bounty hunter for one particular mission, then is taught how to be a bounty hunter himself, before going on a mission to free his wife from a plantation owner of particular notoriety and cruelty. And it’s really great; a piece of cinema that entirely entertains while still managing to be shocking in its presentation of slavery.

Now, the era of slavery in the United States is one that] tends not to be explored too often in film. It’s almost like this is an entire period of history that American film just wants to forget ever existed. There are plenty of films about more modern-era racism, but if you were to ask me for films about slavery, I would struggle to think of many. Obviously there’s Glory or the mini-series Roots (I’m ashamed to admit I’ve seen neither), and after a bit of thinking I might recall the existence of Amistad maybe, but that’s about all that comes to my mind. Now, I have seen Amistad a couple of times, and from memory it’s a well-made thought-provoking film. But I don’t really remember anything about it. Whereas with Django, I don’t think I’ll ever forget anything about it. Tarantino has a real talent for violence, and a strong knowledge of how to use violence to elicit different responses from the audience, and he uses that well here. A lot of the violence is big and bold, excessive and entertaining – but only when used against people who “deserve” it. If there’s a slave-owner who beats his slaves until they’re black and blue, when they die they die in an extremely entertaining manner. But when there’s violence against slaves, when we’re forced to watch the degradation and suffering of someone whose only sins were to be black and to want to not be a slave, Tarantino knows how to present those scenes in a way that horrifies the audience.

Which is not to say that Tarantino is trying to say that the problem with slavery was the fact that people inflicted violence on other people, by any means. Tarantino focuses strongly on the general inhumanity of the system, of the way people were treated. Obviously, much attention has been thrown at the film’s 100-time use of the N-word and whether that’s excessive, but despite the repetition the word never loses its power; it’s a constant reminder of the hateful attitudes that underpinned the society. Those general attitudes are perhaps best on display in a sequence involving Don Johnson as a plantation owner; when encountering Django as a free man, he gives instructions that Django is not to be treated as a slave, nor should be treated as a white man, but instead he should be treated in the same way as the local mentally-challenged kid should be treated.

But for all the way the white villains display their casual unthinking rejection of the fundamental humanity of their slaves, it is ultimately in the violence inflicted on the slaves that those attitudes are most powerfully expressed. What better way is there to demonstrate that you think nothing of the people in front of you than to have one person ripped to pieces by dogs, or to watch two people in a fight to the death, and to justify it because that person belongs to you to do with as you wish. The inherent evil of slavery may not be due to the violence that may have been inflicted on slave, but that violence is a visceral reminder of the hateful attitudes that underpinned the practice.

But here’s the thing about Django. There’s been a lot of discussion about the film in comparison to Inglourious Basterds, and that’s understandable – they’re both over-the-top revenge films in a historical setting. Now, rereading my earlier comments on Basterds, I see I certainly pointed to the way the film talks about cinematic violence, but the more I watch the film the more I appreciate the way it reflects on the way that particular war is portrayed in cinema. Those of us whose countries were on the Allied side can approach World War II with the knowledge both that our side was the winner and that we were morally right. We’ve got no reason to be ashamed or worried about our country’s involvement in fighting Hitler. And so this almost creates a cavalier attitude to the war – it’s almost as though if you want to just make a big action film in a war setting, you might as well use World War II, because it’s the only war that doesn’t really introduce moral complexities. (Plus it helps that the war offers a clear instantly-recognisable villain.) This means that you can get big gung-ho films set in World War II in a way that you don’t get for any other war. And so, by making a big gung-ho WWII film, but then following through on the premise and killing Hitler, rather than being constrained by historical fact, Tarantino points to the absurdity of many film portrayals of the conflict. Tarantino isn’t just mimicking a film style or iconic images in that film; he’s talking about cinema itself. And it is great.

But Django (to me at least) doesn’t have as much to say about cinema, and what it does say is fairly undercut by the cinema style. Django is pretty explicitly a spaghetti western. But the spaghetti western was an outsider’s view of American cinema; they were films made by Italians that were inspired by the American western. And, while I admit that my knowledge of the spaghetti western is very limited (I’ve seen all Sergio Leone’s films, and loved them, but that’s it; I’ve certainly never seen any of the Corbucci films that more obviously inspired the film), my impression is that while those films are set in that era they don’t discuss the issue of slavery in any way. Now, if you wanted to comment on the way cinema as a whole has basically forgotten about the slavery era, that’s fine; and if you wanted to focus on how western films used to overlook racial issues that were present in that era of history, that would be legitimate commentary (and perhaps that was what he was trying to do with the film). But because he so closely tied his film a style that reflects to Italian views of the western, rather than the original western films created by American filmmakers themselves, he effectively creates a distancing effect that almost negates any comment he might be trying to make. The end result is a film that doesn’t seem to have anything else to say beyond “slavery was bad”. It’s still an entertaining film, and that’s good, but it means that Django will always fall short of the greatness Tarantino achieved with Basterds.

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